Countless films try to get inside the minds of children. The easiest method, one that is used most often, is to put the story from their point of view. With that technique, we can see what befalls a children more clearly than they can. We the Animals, the new kaleidoscopic drama from director Jeremiah Zagar, takes that subjectivity even further. In adapting Justin Torres’ autobiographical novel, he strips away narrative until we have more emotion than traditional storytelling. The effect can be cathartic, capturing the dizzying highs of youthful abandon, and yet the film is so fractured that it disconnects from its audience.
The soul of the film are three young brothers. Jonah (Evan Rosado), Manny (Isaiah Kristian), and Joel (Josiah Gabriel) feed off each other’s enthusiasm. They are together for almost every scene of the film, and they have an almost feral energy to them. Sometimes they are too wild, like when they steal from a grocery store or run through the house half naked.
Their parents Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raúl Castillo) are hardly disciplinarians. In fact, they encourage the children to have fun and be imaginative. Shortly after we meet everyone, Ma and Paps get into a physical confrontation. He leaves, and in the aftermath she is depressed and functionally bedridden. Left to their own devices, the boys unintentionally accelerate their coming of age.
We the Animals has an experimental streak that runs the risk of being too twee. On top off the stylish editing, Zagar uses hand drawn animation to further put us into the boys’ mindset. Despite all those flourishes, there are two key conceits that keep the film from being too flashy: the fraught domestic life of the parents, and the grainy cinematography. This film is set in the 1980s, and there is a grainy look to the action, almost like a home movie. The colors have rich tone to them. Set primarily in the summer, We the Animals looks sun-kissed. There is an air of nostalgia to the action, without all the usual trapping of pop culture references from the period.
For all focus on the children, the parents are what ground the film and give it meaning. You may recognize Castillo from the HBO series Looking, and here he draws on similar reserves of inward pain. Vand’s performance has that edge, too, and both parents can take out their frustrations out on their children. Sometimes We the Animals is claustrophobic, since this party of five have seemingly few resources beyond each other.
There is a deep emotional bond, well beyond the mutual need, so we start to see the characters as individuals. There is a sad vignette where Ma fantasizes about her life back in the city, and another where Paps – a towering figure in the family – is first seen as a loser. These moments are the strongest: by humanizing the parents, the moments with rose-colored glasses are all the more credible.
The trouble with We the Animals is it tilts toward familiarity, and repetition. We have seen this kind of approach in Terrence Malick films, as well as Where the Wild Things Are. The autobiographical elements add a touch of danger to the drama, although that is undercut by the film’s episodic nature. Whether this material is moving largely depends on how much you identify with the boys, all of whom provide raw, authentic performances. Their joy is heedless, and their defeats are curshing. Zagar’s stubborn desire to keep things subjective are what make We the Animals a memorable film, although that same decision is also what undermines its ultimate impact.